At the beginning of lockdown in March 2020, a team of researchers from Texas Tech University set out to fight the pandemic back by searching for an alternate diagnostic test kit. The need for an alternate test kit was felt due to the slow response and turnaround times of the traditional RT-PCR tests. Moreover, the shortage of supplies also made it difficult for using this traditional method.
Hence Ashwin Ramanujam, PhD candidate and his advisor Dr. Gerardine G. Botte tried to come up with an electrochemical solution for this problem. But they had minimal experience with viruses and thus collaborated with Dr. Sharilyn Almodovar, a virologist. This team of three approached the problem differently by detecting the viral protein instead of the nucleic acid information as in RT-PCR.
A combination of cyclic voltammetry and chronoamperometry techniques were used for detecting the viral protein of SARS-CoV-2 in saliva samples. The use of electrochemical techniques makes the sensor ultra-fast by returning results instantaneously. Also, since the electrochemical reaction occurs at the electrode/electrolyte interface, the sample requirement is very low. An interesting fact is that most of the experiments were performed virtually by remotely accessing the potentiostat software via Zoom.
The team has successfully tested the diagnostic sensor in synthetic samples. Next steps involve obtaining necessary authorizations for clinical trials and eventual use as a commercial diagnostic test kit for ultra-fast screening of samples for COVID-19 diagnosis.